23 July 2008: A tale of two Americas: Let them eat cake

A tale of two Americas: let them eat cake

In a case of blaming Americans first, Phil Gramm, former Republican senator from Texas and John McCain’s top economic advisor, went on a toot recently about Americans being a nation of whiners. Gramm’s point to working Americans: suck it up; it could be worse.

From one perspective, Gramm does have a point; after all, wealth is relative. America’s poor would be among the well-to-do in Darfur.

Still, Gramm’s intonation has an irritating rub to it. It’s easy to condescendingly call people whiners when one has had it very well. Understanding that compassion is not among conservative virtues, Gramm’s comments go deeper.

It’s called being out of touch. Recall when Bush the Elder was amazed to see how stores scanned items for prices, something that everyday Americans take for granted.

In similar fashion, McCain must have been gone with Bill Curtis to the Fountain of Youth where he found not his youth but the Internet. He acted like a kid in the sandbox when he discovered the Internet and giddily stated that he loves to “watch” it.

That brings to mind Bush the Younger’s discovery of the “Internets,” which is synonymous, perhaps, to the belief in parallel universes, except that there is theoretical construct to posit more than one universe.

When he speaks of Two Americas, John Edwards refers to America as a divided nation, economically. He’s right, of course, and Gramm’s comment helps point out that divide: Gramm, McCain, and the Bush clan are not one accident, one catastrophe away from impoverishment. The distance between them being in the black or in the red is a cosmic gulf. For most reading this, it is likely a thin line.

The division between the Two Americas is cultural as well: in the way Americans, who put their pants on one leg at a time, do things day-to-day.

Those who pump their own gas experience firsthand the knowledge of gas soaring to $4.00 a gallon and beyond. For those who don’t pump their own gas and for whom the cost of a fill up is irrelevant due to personal wealth, the price-per-gallon debate is a mental construct. Since they don’t feel the pain, all they can say is, “Bummer, dude.”

For decades conservatives have been able to paint liberals as elitists. They have been able to pull that off because more Americans identify themselves as conservative rather than liberal, despite the fact the majority of Americans hold very liberal positions on Social Security, health care, Iraq, and the environment.

Well-to-do conservatives have been able to connect with “working Joe or Jane” social conservatives by way of non-economic issues such as guns, gays, and God. In so doing, they have been able to get many working stiffs to vote against their financial self-interests and for the interests of those who have more money than can ever possibly spend.

On This Week with George Stephanapoulos, George Will, the cerebral conservative columnist, sniffed his defense of Gramm. Will pooh-poohed that unemployment is a mere 5.5 percent, and in so doing he got at what is wrong with American conservatism: since Barry Goldwater, it has morphed into a theocratic philosophy that has as its ultimate goal the protection of the uber-rich, the wealthy elite.

The President of the United States George W. Bush muses that while things may be rough for the simple folk right now, he has faith in their ability to make adjustments to survive.

McCain tried to distance himself from Gramm’s comments. But hero status aside, McCain has led a privileged life, first as a scion of powerful military family and then later as consort of beer baroness Cindy, a mega-millionaire.

For McCain, his advisors, and his hero President Bush, the voice of the people, those for whom a 100-dollar bill is not chump change to be dropped as a tip for a dinner tab, is a foreign language.

Because they do not understand the language of the simple folk, the elitist rich interpret the sound of frustration and anger as a whine.

Unless and until they step out of their lives of privilege and do their own shopping, pump their own gas, and develop calluses on their hands, Bush’s, McCain’s, and Gramm’s words will be translated in turn by the working stiffs to mean “Let them eat cake.”

A separate note: In April 2007, I wrote in my column on cancer, “When I watched Tony Snow do polemical gyrations at the White House spinning words to explain his boss, I would think, ‘How could an affable guy like you keep a straight face and sleep at night doing what you do?’ Now, I wonder each day how he’s coming along.”

Tony is no longer “coming along.”

The poignant picture of Tony’s ashes being carried from the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a reminder to me not of his daily work, but of the mountain we have yet to conquer: the defeat of cancer.

Tony, may you rest in peace.

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